A Poem Including History: A Selection from Robert Lunday’s Coins
WHILE EDITING THE poetry for Artful Dodge over the past four years I have had the opportunity to introduce generous selections of writers whose work means a great deal to me, including the late Milton Kessler, a legendary teacher from SUNY Binghamton; Torild Wardenaer, the wildly magnificent Norwegian poet whose prose poems, akin to Ekelof and Transtromer, I first encountered in a writers colony in southern Spain; William Heyen, whose omnivorous poetic engagement in world history has spanned decades and continents; and novelist Robert Mooney, a guiding presence for so many writers, including Christine Lincoln, who paid tribute to Mooney’s teaching in my interview with the two writers in Artful Dodge 43/44.
I am now delighted to present a selection from the newest book by a poet whose life and work I have followed since we first met at a Peace Corps training center in Bukavu, Zaire, twenty-three years ago. Since then, Robert Lunday’s career has blossomed even beyond his early promise, when he seemed to be receiving every fellowship in sight. The poems during those years appeared in Mad Flights, where Lunday united personal biography and recent American history to make a book of both lyric intensity and novelistic breadth. In the late 1980s, Lunday moved to Japan with his wife and infant boy, and we lost touch, though clues of his elusive presence in many lives continued to surface. Then, in the proofs to my poem “Lunday,” a poem in which I traced Robert’s mythic travails “that curlique from Georgia, Soho / Zaire, Oregon, Houston, Palo Alto,” the publisher, whom I’d not met, scribbled a phone number in the margin with the terse comment, “He’s back.” Never let it be said that “poetry makes nothing happen.”
In fact, there is a kind of poetry where marginalia, flotsam, phone numbers, and yes, coins, are recognized not only as material but as the genesis of form. It is this kind of poetry Robert Lunday writes today. His work pays tribute to Pound’s notion that poems should “include” history — and not only history, but meditation, fable, science, confession, philosophy, technology, everything partaking of the power and fluidity of a form in process. Coins as a single poem indeed reminds me of William Matthew’s famous description of a wave, “which is not water / strictly speaking, but a force / that water welcomes and displays.” Coins welcomes and displays its world in a thrum of sound and thought, and in doing so, stretches the bounds of what poetry can accomplish.
—Youngstown, Ohio, November 29, 2003
fusion of John Tree, Iron Tail, Two Moons;
flip-side bison, “Black Diamond”
of the New York Zoological Society—
“hump-backed, little tail encurved, head butting against the rondure of
spark out of time.
When I was a boy,
you could find them in your pocket change—
Indian, bison, child, elegies to the lost world.
Hobos used to carve it a different face:
usually the hobo’s own, capped, bristled, sharing the profile, eye of the
currency at ground level, ear to the rail…
current flowing, carving its snake out of the raw physics—
in the roundhouse, a watchman flavors his glove with vinegar. The table
is covered in matchsticks and an unfinished hand.
“All thought is incarnate. It lives by the body and by the favor of
A penny for your thoughts—
a nickel for your face.
Painters painted a flashing point between specific and general. Likeness was a competence: of painter, but also of sitter. Composure in the face and body becomes competence in oil — what can be maintained materially, in the pre-cinema of oil, dissolved in its liquid light, crated, closeted, shipped, stored, owned, bought and sold, reproduced, hung here on the wall of a museum (the first multiplex) where “culture” is the obverse of this dead person’s facial competence, and the reverse of my awed countenance: the “art,” like the organic hues of medieval stained glass, is somewhere between screen and eye. It is in the air, hummingbird-sized, hovering, unaware of its cage.
“The image of the sun, oh parhelion, is only for a brief moment the sun.”
“In England Sir Francis Bacon was gathering his facts like coins-any kind, from any place — you never know when an ugly penny might be found stamped with a rare mint mark or distant date. Meticulous observation, the natural history of everything. . . .”
“Perhaps a woman is only an abnormal man, and a man an abnormal woman.” Obverse, reverse. One the monster to the other. Demonstrated how? You walk that way, I walk this. Sex a quick, fissured sky: thunderclap. I am longitude to your latitude, warp to woof, systole to diastole, etc., etc.
Sight is the result of disequilibrium. Matter, they say (“they,” coiners of theory) arises, “matriculates,” as a local condensation in the matrix. Space is the mother, time is the father; in that field, the wildflowers are a shout of color, the universe is observing itself.
Face is aptitude for preservation. Thus we have many, though one centers the rest: flower over the heart, mask like the skin of water.
Know the transvestites. They weave through the supermarket, with their breasts that have not yet grown pear-like. The beauty of the transvestites is typed rather than written, stepped rather than flurried, their hips lack the cursive run of a woman’s, their eyes are oddly Egyptian. We are fortunate, though, to have their hero-carpentry of gender, buccaneering girls with boy-swords holstered back towards the nether-hole.
Some people have quotation marks instead of halos; the transvestites quote each other quoting women, and the supermarket is filled with the sound of their Egyptian eyes. (The exergue says “man”; but the face value is woman.)
bu, ryo, shu, oban,
tael, mace, candareen,
ecu, ceitel, cent, centavo, centime,
denarius, sarrazinos, ducat, florin. . .
“Poetry is a certain whole
of which only fragments are required.”
There was no money in the desert that day
but the face of Moses, shining. . .
Saccades, jetons, polka dots, leptons, brockages, cowries, pearls, cows’ eyes, floaters, lozenges, tiles, bottle caps, cameos. . .
Newton, by authority of the King, confiscated certain stamping-mills of button-makers imported from the continent—
machines which, he ascertained, might be turned to the counterfeiting of coins.
Tilled below, tolled above, toiling all the while in between:
Zeros, Oh’s, vortices, blind spots, wax seals broken, black coins.
Bagatine, cecchine, gazet, knetall, moccinigo, portague, silverling, stiver;
a chip, floating in the puddle;
a rain of woodchips, a spew of them,
from the mill;
sparks, afterglows, cysts, mucus, roses
of blood, the ulcer.
Expression is a turning in and out of things, a churning of surface, oscillation of message and messenger.
Body to face, face to profile, profile to silhouette, silhouette to nose: the main stamp of a man is there, in his cartilage. Push yourself down to the bare fact, and you will fit in any palm.
So much flesh and blood,
alabaster, ghost-white stone,
dust of a dry road:
Nike is most beautiful at the moment
when she hesitates
her white hand beautiful as a command
rests against the air
but her wings tremble
She sees a soldier set to die; desires to kiss his cheek, but stays, to keep
the boy at battle.
Hesitation coins the moment:
a lyric, orb-shaped, the soldier’s name—
the hand holds it,
but the lips refuse it.
The currency of boys is to keep on dying.
The “nation” is a womb of death:
this boy must be found
with an open breast
and the acid obol of his country
under his numb tongue
—coin for Charon’s palm, if the soul is to be ferried over; or it will wander aimlessly.
Many a coin has not been properly planted under the tongue. I see spirits crossing the street, furtive looks left and right, hands in pockets, digging for coins. When I see money on the sidewalk, I leave it. Sometimes the tokens to hell rain from the sky; sometimes when you close your eyes, they’re just there.
“Worn-out coins, talents, Cistercians, ducats, Rhine thalers, are like old demons where the same eternal potentiality of good and evil is lurking. . .
passion concentrated in a small piece of metal that is similar to the passion of love or a call leading to the peaks of a human career, but also under the ax of the executioner…”
The Hemitartemorion, smallest of the Greek coins, smaller than the centavo, small inside the early-morning shadow of its name, often swallowed inadvertently. . . .
We woke up one day and all the weaponry was gone.
Nothing in the armories, silos, factories, barracks, gun racks, holsters; everything gone.
The President got on the phone to our Allies; fishing and hedging, he sensed they’d suffered the same effect. (One must take care: allies with an edge might be enemies.)
Perennial foes, neutrals, rogue states, nations in need of “regime change” buzzed and banged at the screen door: but it was clear their stingers were bent, their fists empty, their venom as thin as our own.
The blank and level battlefield was not cause for relief; rather, terror among the formerly terrible was boundless. What was one to focus one’s fear on? The guns were gone; soldiers, hunters, high schoolers, criminals, cops, all disarmed.
The Joint Chiefs were all out of joint. In the War Room, they pondered. One general flicked at his lighter, but even the cigarette lighters were useless. Another officer pulled out a book of matches; matchsticks, at least, ignited and burned.
This was progress: everyone smoked. They collected all the matches they could, stacked them, counted them, discussed ways to improve their efficiency. They looked at the big pile of matches on the table before them: what could one do with a million, billion matches? How many matches would fit into a B-1 bomber? They scrounged everywhere for more matches, they hoarded them; they looked at the piles of matches all around the room, they smoked, and they worked on the problem, day and night, night and day.
The field: it might be a space of seeing that fits within the “moment” (if your head were on a coin, the horizon would be the rim of the coin, and time the coin spinning). The field might be the pursuit of one object, purl of desire through memory, and the field flips from dark to light to dark, day to night to day. . . still, the field keeps its shape; you are always the center of the field. The field might be a space large enough, also small enough, such that if you dropped your last coin somewhere in its weeds, within the day you would find it. Start:
Back and forth, back and forth: boustrophedon, like the first writing, “path of the ox.” Weave your own and the mirror-world into one: have both sides of your coin at once. Unconcealment allows concealment. What appears in the field one way suppresses alternate views. One thing has an indeterminate number of faces; coins might seem to add up to precise amounts, to transcend their glitter and jingle as they transmute into the sift and fold of bills; but “coins” do not add up. They “accumulate,” they “arrive.” They button the moment here on the dresser, there on the bookcase. Some moments are bridges to other moments — spans to the hour of accounting, “day of reckoning” which is every day-coins in the jar.
At seventeen I moved to Manhattan: bus ride overnight on I-95, Port Authority early morning, room and a job by evening:
God loves the idiots, and gives them a head start sometimes.
I remember walking out at dusk the next night, into the park, past the chess players, prayers and doomsayers, dope sellers, scholars, and gawkers. This first day of independence: more good and evil than I had ever known, a short sprint all around from where I stood.
Under the Washington Arch, a man in black walked a tightrope six feet high amidst a ring of onlookers: torches in the air, and the persistences of flame-tongues falling like coins into a place behind my eyes. His eyes were pin-pricks; when he got down from his rope, he was the size of a child, but loomed in mute dominion high as the arch.
This was the Frenchman who’d walked the sky between the Towers; when I went to my first day at work I walked beneath them, felt the tightrope treacherous and flat to the ground, my whole life shock-blue and towering above. (I thought I could fall all the way back to Carolina. The towers are gone, my hair shows gray, and the sky there has three thousand shades of blue if you close your eyes.)
When the wire-walker got down, he looked around at us all, sensed my newness-fear and awe like phosphor all around me. He reached behind my ear and drew a Kennedy half-dollar from where the torch-flames must have coalesced. He held it high above my head, as if the magic were mine, ours, everyone’s; maybe the rest had seen it a hundred times before, but they cheered, as I remember, everyone, for this half-dollar of magic in the Frenchman’s hand, in its brief dominion above us all.
The dissection of spirit would discover a hoard of coins; most of them small, fish scales, easily swallowed by children.
God hoards; the poet collects.
(The Invention of the Pre-Cinema)
Major James Bell, First-Sight Phenomena; remarks on a pair of coins from the reign of Boadicea, queen of Britain:
It is of a slightly convex, or dish-shaped form, bearing on the concave side a rudely-executed horse, with a well-formed chariot wheel, and various rings, as well as small crosses, or stars, and balls, indicative, most probably, of the value of the coin; and on the convex side the word ODVOC, thus wanting the initial B; while, singularly enough, the only other extant coin of Boadicea’s days, which is preserved in the British Museum, bears only BODVO, there not being sufficient space on the surface of either coin to admit the entire name.
The two coins, in their own time, blinking. Two eyes of equal value, oscillating — equal only while the chariot’s wheel kept turning, somewhere outside the coin’s concavity (odd shape — as if made for the cupped palm, the Queen’s name buttoning the pulse). Blinking left, blinking right: two coins, two hands.
In the mind they flip over and over, a cloud of motion arises, eyes blink life. Theater of memory: a thousand facets in, toward a single center, where the light will never reach.
This is one of a thousand births of the cinema: the name of the Queen extends beyond the frame: backward on one coin, forward on the next, a flicker, beyond all frame.
The skull is cervix of the moment.
The minute fits in us like a quarter the esophagus.
The half-minute, a carbuncular breath. . .
The second is inside the inside: seconds are what amaze when you dash the larger coins on to the ground, shatterings of wokenness. They are worth exactly their shimmer as they fall away; nothing more.
A pearl is a mind of the moment. Emblem of the glow between everything and nearly nothing. There is no “nothing” because the hand always has itself, and the eye, itself.
“I was created to measure a certain moment of duration.” The old homeless man etched my face onto a nickel, and I paid him a quarter. It took him fifteen minutes to finish; he spoke as he worked, a multitude of observations…
when he finished, I was someone else. But I paid him anyway.
They say (“they”) the body’s gross is worth $23.16 in current value: boil the corpse down to its chemicals, and we’re all small change.
When I swam the lake at Kivu, it felt like falling, dusk seeping into my hair; the tilapia puckered dimes on the surface, mouths breaking air, feeding on insects; and rain drops piercing, wind lacerating waves.
I was as small as a rain drop, my body agreed with the depths and grayed into it. God bent down and picked me up with the same mild luck of a walker plucking a shiny dime from the street.
Saved from drowning: corner-turning of the mortal coil. Fishermen in their brown pirogue, laughing sunlight as they laid me in their nets; fishermen going out, returning, fishermen who couldn’t swim, but labored on the waves like walkers on water. . . .
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